Film Review: Drift

Shallow, plodding Aussie drama about surfing siblings.

Sam Worthington’s presence in the cast is unlikely to improve the chances of this Australian drama set in the surfing milieu of the 1970s making waves with North American audiences. Shot in 2011 and finally released on home turf in May, Drift was an instant box office wipeout. Wrekin Hill, which bought the North American rights last September, faces a daunting challenge in launching the movie inspired by the founding of the Australian-based global surfwear empires Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong.

In itself that’s a dreary premise for a drama, overlaid with a clumsy mangling of sibling rivalry, a tame romance and brushes with a crime gang and a shady entrepreneur. The surfing sequences are impressively filmed, but on dry land the unexciting narrative plods along to a predictable conclusion. Hence the film budgeted at a relatively hefty $A11.4 million ($11.6 million) falls between two stools: not enough big-wave action to satisfy surfing enthusiasts, not enough suspense or intrigue to grab the attention of mainstream audiences.

Myles Pollard and Xavier Samuel play brothers Andy and Jimmy Kelly, who move from Sydney to Margaret River on the Western Australian coast with their mother Kat (Robyn Malcolm) in 1972 to escape their abusive father. Worthington is JB, a scruffy, free-spirited, itinerant surf photographer who roams the country in his psychedelic van accompanied by exotic Hawaiian hottie Lani (South African-born, New Zealand-raised actress Lesley Ann-Brandt). JB seems asexual, curiously: He and Lani are platonic friends (supposedly the girl’s father asked the hippie to look after her) and he has no bed-mates.

The brothers are befriended by JB and Lani as Andy dreams of building a surfboard/leisure-wear empire. Andy and Jimmy both fancy Lani, generating a slight degree of sexual tension, while JB spouts psychobabble about “enjoying the Zen” and “centering your chi.” A run-in with a drug-running biker gang led by Miller (Steve Bastoni as a stereotypical villain) threatens to derail Andy’s plans.

Pollard and Samuel make a fair fist of their roles, the responsible, ambitious Andy sometimes clashing with the volatile, trouble-prone Jimmy, although neither character is particularly compelling or nuanced. Worthington, a mate of Pollard’s since they graduated from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1998, drifts in and out of view with nothing profound to impart, just banalities such as ”We adapt, we survive, we move on.”

As the boys’ loving and supportive mother, Malcolm spends most of her time fretting and anchored to a sewing machine making wetsuits. The most interesting and sympathetic character is Andy and Jimmy’s friend Gus (Aaron Glenane), whose plight gives the film a welcome injection of pathos. Other locals including the cops, an unsympathetic bank manager and a venal surf competition promoter, are skin-deep clichés.

Co-directors Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill, who wrote the screenplay, divided their responsibilities, Nott handling the surf sequences, O’Neill focusing on the drama. This is Nott’s feature directing debut; the expat Aussie, who lives in Los Angeles, has directed hundreds of commercials plus music-videos, short films and two documentaries. O’Neill’s film credits include The Factory and Solo. Here, neither displays a great grasp on how to drive the narrative or create well-rounded characters.

A thunderous pop and rock soundtrack blending 1970s songs with contemporary tunes accompanies some spectacular action scenes shot by surf cinematographers Rick Rifici and Rick Jakovich. But in most other respects, this film is shallow and wishy-washy.